Il Carnevale: Late winter in Venice brings back secular traditions

In the late 1980s, in Venice at the times of Carnevale, intimate and private and lesser known, you could actually step out from your house in the morning, for school or for work, and find nothing had really changed. No masked people there. No tourists around either that early. But this has changed vividly, and I am writing because today is the first day of “Carnevale 2013” in Venice: this means that now that in the roughly two weeks to come, about 150,000 people will be visiting Venice every weekend, if we stick with the 2012 figures. By the way, this is about three times the current population” in Venice (approx. 58,500). But what is the difference between the 2013 Carnevale event to its beginnings – the first Carnevale, after it had stopped after the fall of the Republic of Venice in 1797.

Luxury brocade and silk outfits – there are many shops in Venice, not just for masks but for sumptuous dresses and accessoires as well

It was in 1979 that the Carnival had been re-suscitated by Venetian actors, and also Radio Vanessa, a Venice centro storico radio station located in Castello.

I have found a picture of the first Carnevale organized in the 20th century; Source: Carnevale di Venezia

The first “Carneval season” I remember very consciously as a child was February 1989. Carneval was slowly distingishing itself as masked events spread in town on the various campi, and private Carneval events and parties were started. For example, the famous Ballo del Doge, the most exclusive Carnival event in Venice, was initiated only later in 1994. I remember that February Saturday before Martedì grasso, my mother and I were walking up to Piazza San Marco very early in the morning, as I had decided I wanted to dedicate that day to “chase masks” with my camera.  And here are the pictures I took in Piazza San Marco at around 8:30 in the morning.

Masks near Rialto, all picture collages of this post are of February 1989

It was foggy, mild and very wet. Later on we went to the Rialto market, and then at around 11 am, after I had tasted a tramezzino at my usual place under the arcades, we finally encountered the first masked people. Masks then cropped up at noon, and were there everywhere simply asking us to take their pictures. Finally, we looked in at a bookstore in Campo San Luca, first posed with “masks” and then I got this freshly printed colorful book Le Maschere Veneziane” to learn more at home and share it with my grandparents. That day, we also bought my very first cookbook: Venezia in Cucina and another children’s book with lots of cute illustrations for exploring Venice.

Later on, I met friends and we went for a long walk to the Scala del Bovolo, always on the lookout for masks, and all the way to Campo San Zanipolo to warm up with a hot chocolate at Rosa Salva’s. In the evening, we simply danced with other children, surrounded by  tourists of course, on Piazza San Marco, to great music, it must have been Radio Vanessa again.

Friends near Campo San Fantin; right picture: Scala del Bovolo

The difference between this early edition to the 2013 Carneval can be summarized in a few sentences From the intimate spontaneous Carnival when I was a child, that was of course adorned with beautiful masks and gatherings in Piazza San Marco, the Venetian Carnival has evolved:

Both public and private Carneval events have become more numerous. In piazza San Marco, they set up a huge theater stage: Il Gran Teatro.

There are public and private fabulous balls, the most extravagant to me is the Ballo del Doge: Take a look at their website, and at a short video below, resuscitating the mardi grasse festivities in which the Doge participated.

There are more theme events (eg the Festa delle Marie) meaning that Venice is waking up its traditions and legends and presenting it to a greater public present during Carneval. Just think there is also a quality food event in the Piazza – food regional tastings. And all around in the Venetian pasticcerie, you can taste traditional Carneval delicacies: galani, fritelle … Venice will be using well its stage during these roughly two weeks’ of Carnival time.

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